Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Louisa Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire & Manchester

Luise (Louise) Friederike Auguste von Alten was born on June 15, 1832 in the Kingdom of Hanover. Her father, Gräf Karl Franz Viktor von Alten, was a Hanoverian nobleman while her mother, Hermine von Schminke, was a Hessian noblewoman. Because of the family’s aristocratic background, Louise and her parents were often at the royal Hanoverian court of King Ernest Augustus, the son of George III of the U.K. Louise, who was a great beauty, was a hit among the other Hanoverian courtiers from a young age. She possessed a certain charismatic allure that attracted people of all types and she was known to be a charming, sociable, and politically intelligent lady. Many men sought her hand in marriage but Louise was not interested in living the rest of her life in Hanover, which she viewed as too remote and insignificant when compared to other European kingdoms. Louise wanted a life much bigger than the one she had on the Continent. She wanted to rise above her peers and become, essentially, a nineteenth century celebrity. And to achieve all this, Louise knew that she had to step out of her homeland and into the unknown.

Louise Montagu, Duchess of Manchester
When Louise was in her late teens, she and her family spent the winter vacationing in southern France. One night, she attended an opera in the city of Nice where she caught the attention of a young British Lord by the name of William Drogo Montagu, Viscount Mandeville. William was the handsome son and heir of the 6th Duke of Manchester. Just about a year before he ran into Louise at the French opera, he was involved in a private scandal when he had a son out of wedlock with a commoner. When his mistress was eight months pregnant, his family hastily married her off to another man who gave his name to William’s illegitimate son. But this affair far from William’s mind when he met the beautiful and charming Louise. He began courting her straightaway and fell for her almost instantly, even declaring that his entire future happiness was in her hands. For Louise, the Viscount Mandeville was her means of rising to the greatest heights of society, as he would soon inherit his father’s dukedom and become one of the highest-ranking peers in the United Kingdom. So, when William proposed marriage, both Louise and her family happily accepted.

William Drogo Montagu, 7th Duke of Manchester
While the von Alten family was elated with Louise’s betrothal, the Montagu’s were not as enthusiastic. Louise was not the typical choice for a future duchess, as she was a foreigner, a German from Hanover. But William was besotted with his betrothed, so his parents could do nothing but grumble and pout as the wedding preparations went through. The couple wed on July 22, 1852 in the chapel of the Royal Palace in Hanover. Louise was not yet twenty at the time while William was twenty-eight. But, despite the couple’s initial lust, their marriage would prove to be an unhappy one. Louise and William were complete opposites in personality and the marriage was torn apart by William’s wastefulness, as he ultimately ruined the family fortune (this trait for extravagance seems to run in the Montagu men, as William was not the first man in the family to drain away his fortune and certainly not the last. His son, grandson, and even the Montagu descendants of today have inherited this cumbersome characteristic). Yet, even in the face of marital unhappiness, Louise and William managed to have five children together, two sons and three daughters, all of whom would follow in their mother’s footsteps by making expedient marriages and moving up in society.

Louise and William’s children:
  • George Victor Drogo Montagu, 8th Duke of Manchester (1853-1892) married: Consuelo Yznaga – had issue
  • Lady Mary Louisa Elizabeth Montagu (1854-1934) married: (1) William Douglas-Hamilton, 12th Duke of Hamilton – had issue, (2) Robert Carnaby Forster – no issue
  • Lady Louisa Augusta Beatrice Montagu (1856-1944) married: Archibald Acheson, 4th Earl of Gosford – had issue
  • Lord Charles William Augustus Montagu (1860-1939) married: Hon. Mildred Cecilia Harriet Sturt – no issue
  • Lady Alice Maude Olivia Montagu (1862-1957) married: Edward Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby – had issue

Louise Montagu, Duchess of Manchester
(Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1859)
Louise and William resided mainly at Kimbolton Castle, which had been the family seat of the Dukes of Manchester since 1615 (it had once been the final home of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon). Three years after the couple’s marriage, William’s father died on August 8, 1855, making him the 7th Duke of Manchester and Louise his Duchess. Just like in Hanover, the lovely Louise was a popular figure in British society due to her physical attractiveness, foreign background, and enthralling personality. She was a master entertainer and was known for hosting wonderful, grand parties for her peers, who commended her flair for conversation and aptitude for discretion. She was talented not just as a social hostess but as a political one as well, for she was able to throw fun, exciting levees just as easily as she could host serious, intellectual dinners. It was her charm and ability as a well-rounded hostess that allowed her to make friends in high places, including the future King Edward VII. When she wasn’t throwing the party of the year, Louise was indulging in her next favorite pastime – horseback riding. Just as she did with her parties, Louise always made sure she made a splash in everything she did, including riding. She could always be seen wearing a tight-fitting riding habit and a cherry ribbon around her neck, which caused caught a stir amongst her male acquaintances. She was also known for her sense of humor, which could only be described as “salty”. Once, one of the men that she hunted with commented that on one memorable ride with the Duchess, she said that when they got back home, her “arse” would be as red as the ribbon she wore. Her spunk and her popularity prompted Queen Victoria to name her as her Mistress-of-the-Robes in 1858 (she always had a certain fondness for Prussian courtiers), to which the London society newspapers of the time said, “no one knows how gloriously beautiful a woman can be who did not see the Duchess of Manchester when she was thirty”.

Consuelo Montagu, Duchess of Manchester
Her eldest son and the heir to the dukedom of Manchester, George Montagu, caused quite a stir in 1876 when he married the beautiful and unconventional Cuban-American daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, Consuelo Yznaga. The marriage was arranged for entirely political reasons (Consuelo would gain the title of Duchess when George succeeded his father while the Montagu family could use Consuelo’s rich inheritance to fill the coffers William had emptied) thus, the couple never loved each other. Although they had three children, George had deserted his wife after a year. Louise had always been fond of her daughter-in-law and stood by her, using her own influence to get the banjo-playing, cigarette-smoking Consuelo into the highest aristocratic circles in Britain. She even introduced Consuelo to the Prince of Wales, and, as the Prince loved American woman, the two became good friends. Consuelo also befriended the Prince of Wales’s wife, Alexandra of Denmark, both of whom were close to Louise. Alexandra even had Louise’s youngest daughter – Lady Alice – appointed as one of her Ladies of the Bedchamber. But for all her beauty and fame, Louise was never happy with her spendthrift, careless spouse. It was only on March 22, 1890 when the sixty-six year old 7th Duke of Manchester died that Louise was able to truly achieve real happiness. She could finally be with the genuine love of her life and the man she had been secretly having an affair with for more than thirty years – Spencer Compton Cavendish, 8th Duke of Devonshire.

Spencer Compton Cavendish, 
8th Duke of Devonshire
The Duchess of Manchester and the Duke of Devonshire had been deeply in love with each other for almost the entirety of Louise’s marriage. Spencer, who was known as “Harty-Tarty”, had been unmarried his whole life and had a longtime affair with the famous courtesan, Catherine Walters (“Skittles”), who he shared with various other men, including the Prince of Wales. He had been an MP since he was twenty-four and was deeply obsessed with politics. He had been the leader of the Liberal Party from 1875 to 1866 and, surprisingly enough (considering his love for government), he turned down the position of Prime Minister from the Queen herself three different times. He tried to mask his fixation with politics by making an extreme effort to flaunt his love for horse racing but anyone, including Louise, could see that the Duke’s passion in life was government. Devonshire probably loved Louise just as much as he loved Parliament, for after an appropriate period of mourning for Louise; the fifty-nine year old Devonshire married his long-time secret lover, the sixty year-old Louise, on August 18, 1892 at Christ Church in Mayfair. Louise was a duchess yet again, this time the Duchess of Devonshire, which earned her the epithet “the Double Duchess”.

Louise Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire
as Queen Zenobia
Louise wasted no time in asserting herself as the social and political hostess of the Devonshire homestead, the beautiful and historic Chatsworth House. Louise, despite her age, was a welcome change for Chatsworth, as it had been eighty years since a Duke of Devonshire had ever married and had a consort to run the home. For as energetic and outgoing as the new Duchess of Devonshire was, her husband did not share her same vigor, and he was well known for falling asleep at social and political events, including at the House of Lords. But Louise was just as famous for her parties at Chatsworth as she was at Kimbolton and some of her frequent guests included her friends, Edward VII and his wife, Queen Alexandra. Louise, who loved to gamble, never lost her sense of humor in her old age. At her parties, she would have gambling chips and cards in every room right next to bibles. Louise’s crowning achievement was in 1897 when she hosted the Devonshire House ball to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The occasion was of unparalleled grandeur and each guest famously dressed up as historical monarchs. The Duchess herself went as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, and the costume she wore is preserved today in the Chatsworth archive.

Louise lost some of her fame and power over time as she aged and society fluctuated around her. During the early twentieth century, the elderly Duchess was described as a “relic of a bygone age”. One contemporary recorded that she was “a wraith of what she had been, and still be-wigged and be-diamonded, and be-rouged, she was rather like the half ruinous shell of some castellated keep, with the flower boxes in full bloom on the crumbling stills”. Tragedy befell her in 1908 when her beloved husband, the Duke of Devonshire, died on March 24th at the age of seventy-four from pneumonia. A total of 300 Members of Parliament paid their respects at his funeral, after which he was buried at St. Peter's Churchyard in Edensor, which is the traditional resting place for members of the Cavendish family. Three years after the Duke's death, the seventy-nine year old Louise was attending the Sandown Races in Esher Park on July 15, 1911 when she suddenly suffered a seizure and died. She was interred with her husband at Edensor. Her death marked the passing of one of the last "Grand Dames" of the English aristocracy. 

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